In 1922, H. L. Mencken was told by a publisher "there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States -- first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap; and fourthly, books on Lincoln."
Times change. So do profits and losses at publishing houses -- but not, apparently, when you're talking about books about Abraham Lincoln. An epochal American event -- the 200th birthday on Thursday of Abraham Lincoln -- is being marked by an inundation of new Lincoln books the likes of which few of us have ever seen.
Three of us are going to try to keep up with some of them in this astonishing flood on this and the following page. Whatever happens at bookstore cash registers and libraries, there are marvels here important to write about:
*Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik (Knopf, 213 pages, $$24.95). What happened Feb. 12, 1809, that changed the world wasn't merely the birth, in a log cabin on Nolin Creek in Kentucky, of Abraham Lincoln. In one of those incredible happenstances that either validate astrology or the miracles of coincidence, on the same day half a world away on an English country estate was born Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution would transform scientific thought just as Lincoln's presidency would transform all ideas about democracy. Sometimes-embattled New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik has brilliantly taken it upon himself to "connect the dots" in the BIG picture of the famously bearded giants given to the world on Feb. 12, 1809.
It is an astonishing and exceptionally brilliant book whose title "Angels and Ages," nevertheless, comes from the slightly factitious "controversy" about just what it was that Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said at Lincoln's bedside in that tiny room at the exact moment that Lincoln succumbed to John Wilkes Booth's bullet in his head. Did Stanton say, "Now he belongs to the ages?" Or, "Now he belongs to the angels?" Gopnik's own answer, at book's end, is a marvel of artificial ingenuity considering that most historians simply make it "ages" and have done with it.
With great intellectual panache, Gopnik correlates that with Charles Darwin's place in the dispute which Disraeli, like any good troublemaking political rhetorician, boiled down to the question, "Is man an ape or an angel?"
This is a book of no small learning, research and derring-do by an exemplary modern New Yorker writer who was far too often for comfort been on the business end of accusations of fatuousness. While it's indeed true that he is entirely capable of interpolating completely off the wall speculations about female fashions where they simply don't belong, he's also capable, just a few pages away, of noting "that the boxer Muhammad Ali had a given name that spoke directly to the struggle for freedom in a way that his adopted name can only suggest." In other words, the original Cassius Clay in Kentucky was "as courageous an anti-slavery crusader as existed in the country; and one of the rare men of the South who grasped the scale of the danger and threat to the Republic."
You'll also find in the book's opening epigraph the matter-of-fact news that Pablo Picasso collected images of Lincoln in a box all his life.
Gopnik has, quite brilliantly triangulated all of us, with the two men born on Feb. 12, 1809.
*The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now edited by Harold Holzer (Library of America, 968 pages, $40). There is no title on the dust flap of this, one of the greatest books in the Lincoln flood and one of the best ever from the invaluable Library of America. What one sees instead is a snippet of eyewitness reportage by Nathanael Hawthorne on meeting "Uncle Abe" in 1862: "He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be the outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning after the disarrangement of the pillow" etc. Elsewhere, inside, Hawthorne sums up: "about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable."
In this book's near-1,000 pages is a treasure house of words about Abraham Lincoln -- not just from American sources from Emerson to E. L. Doctorow but Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Henrik Ibsen, Victor Hugo, Bram Stoker, Leo Tolstoy and H. G. Wells, too (an ailing Tolstoy, quoted by Count S. Stakelberg, said of Lincoln "of all the great national heroes and statesmen of history, Lincoln is the only real giant. Alexander, Frederick the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Gladstone ane even Washington stand in greatness of character, in depth of feeling and in a certain moral power far behind Lincoln.")
One of the great books of 2009.
*The Best American History Essays on Lincoln edited by Sean Wilentz (Palgrave/Macmillan, 253 pages, $16.95 paper). A more narrowly historical and American anthology of indentured historians' views of Lincoln, from Richard Hofstader on Lincoln's "Self-Made Myth" and Edmund Wilson's scorn in "Patriotic Gore" of all the "romantic and sentimental rubbish" about Lincoln to Jean H. Baker's revisionist, post-feminist '80s view of the miseries of the Lincoln marriage.
*Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War edited by J. G. Levin and P. J. Huff (Smithsonian/Collins, 212 pages, $19.95 paper). No American politician -- and few great historical figures of any sort -- were as made for caricature as Abraham Lincoln. This fascinating book collects his contemporaries -- Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Currier and Ives, you name it. All had spindle legs, even when covered up by a nightgown, as in "Leslie's Illustrated's" 1864 cartoon of "Mammy Lincoln" chastising "the naughty boy Gotham Who Would Not Take the Draft" (i.e. the New York draft riots.)
*The Portable Abraham Lincoln edited by Andrew Delbanco (Penguin, 369 pages, $18 paper). An essential American book, along with "The Lincoln Anthology's" collection of others on the subject of Lincoln. Said Edmund Wilson of Lincoln, the writer "his own style was cunning in its cadences, exact in its choice of words, and yet also instinctive and natural; and it was inseparable from his personality in all its manifestations." Lawyerly, offers Gopnik, in "Ages and Angels" until, almost invariably, of surpassing eloquence and clarity in conclusion. All the obvious choices are here but see also Lincoln's 1864 draft of a letter to ardent unionist Isaac M. Schermerhorn who invited Lincoln to a "Union Mass Meeting" in Buffalo. An armistice, Lincoln writes and "the insurgents would be in peaceful possession of all that has been struggled for." Ergo, no armistice.
Has any wartime leader ever spent so much time thinking about the sacrifices of the dead and their meaning?
Jeff Simon is the arts and books editor of The News.